The Key to Becoming a Strategy-Minded Executive

Herminia Ibarra Career Management,   Leadership The Wall Street Journal

Some executives believe that if they set aside a few hours each week for uninterrupted thinking, they will have more and better strategic ideas.

This is not only wishful thinking, it’s backward thinking.

We are much more likely to act our way into strategic thinking than we are to think our way into strategic action.

Many executives who want to improve their strategic skills confess they simply don’t know where to begin. While it’s easy by comparison to perform operational duties, which come with clear, prioritized “to do” lists that can’t be ignored, effective strategic behaviors involve longer time frames and ambiguous feedback with regard to what will ultimately pay off. Think about it: What does one do first thing in the morning in order to be more strategic?

My research shows that there are specific things executives can do to develop strategic abilities. These aren’t exercises to periodically carve out time for, and they certainly aren’t activities to try once a year at a strategic retreat.

Here are four practices that really can make an executive more strategic—in thought and in action.

Bring the Outside In

Strategic leaders need a network of well-placed contacts outside the company who will help them understand the bigger context in which they operate. They constantly need to be on the lookout for what new technologies may reshape their industry, for example, or how globalization might be affecting the organization’s recruitment plans.

All of us have an operational network that allows us to get our daily work done through others inside the company and within the scope of the current business, its customers and suppliers. Most of us also have personal networks based on common history, friendship or interests with people outside our firms.

Strategic executives make it their business to go one step further, leveraging operational and personal contacts in order to connect people, ideas, and resources that wouldn’t normally bump into one another.

How does that work specifically? It could be perfectly feasible for, say, a chief marketing officer to spend half her time immersed in worlds far removed from her company’s current businesses. She could network in adjacent industries or innovation hot spots like Silicon Valley, then use blogs, lunches and events to share what she is learning outside with her more internally focused peers across the organization.

The goal should be for this executive’s outside-in connections to lead to new business opportunities and partnerships for her company, and to a stronger internal network for her.

Balance External and Internal Demands

C-suite jobs require navigating a large and diverse group of outside stakeholders—regulators, customers, collaborators and others. As a result the demands on a C-suite executive’s time increase exponentially.

Studies have found that these external demands top the list of challenges faced by first-time CEOs. Speaking requests and other ceremonial roles are piled on from day one. It’s crucial to find the right balance between what is important—building key strategic relationships and shaping the leader’s public image—and what is optional—commitments that could be useful but aren’t directly related to core company interests or goals.

Finding this balance can be especially tricky for any C-suite officer for whom professional activities are an important source of knowledge and credibility. Say you’re a chief technologist at a Silicon Valley company who gets a lot of invitations to speak at conferences world-wide on topics ranging from data privacy to trends in social media. You’re also active in efforts to bring more girls into STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) and to support coding programs in local high schools. At the same time, you continue to participate in informal engineering circles and “insider” roundtables that are vital to your own creativity—and to your standing at the company. All of these commitments, while important, can grow to the point that they interfere with your primary activities.

Keeping a foot in your professional world enhances your ability to add value to the top team when it comes to key strategic decisions. But, at the same time, too much external focus can make it difficult to maintain your professional edge and get buy-in for your ideas internally. That’s why its critical to manage your calendar and periodically rebalance your portfolio of activities.

Control Your ‘Strategic’ Agenda

C-suite executives often find themselves responding to a large number of “strategic” initiatives, many of which are strategic in name only.

Sandy Ogg, a former chief human resources officer at Unilever, says that during his eight years at the global food company, key executives could be asked to take part in more than 100 corporate initiatives at any given moment, ranging from IT to diversity to corporate social responsibility. If the executives had devoted their attention to most of the initiatives, their delivery on key performance indicators would have been compromised, says Mr. Ogg, now an operating partner at the private-equity firm Blackstone Group.

Mr. Ogg has responded to this challenge by developing the following three-step method for executives to discern which initiatives deserve their active involvement and which ones they can back more perfunctorily: Draw up a list of every strategic initiative you are being asked to support; rank each one according to key criteria such as stature of the initiative’s sponsor, its budget and time frame, and quality of the team involved; then, simply put less effort into initiatives that don’t rank highly so you can put more into those that do.

Collaborate at the Top

C-suite executives must learn to collaborate among themselves. It’s important to invest time in building relationships with others on the leadership team.

Many such groups, composed of the CEO and his or her direct reports, don’t really operate as teams. Each member runs his or her own region, function or product category; there is little incentive for aligning efforts into a coherent whole. But, by definition, C-suite executives are interdependent. They are meant to provide leadership to the overall enterprise. That’s why at Blackstone, according to the company, an important institution is the annual get-together of portfolio CEOs at which they are expected to share ideas and best practices.